This episode of the Emotion Lab is dedicated to the story of Head Set and how virtual reality (VR) can be used to help keep journalists safe when reporting from the frontline. Graeme Cox, CEO at emteq labs, is joined by Aela Callan, co-founder of Head Set – an immersive learning ecosystem that delivers more impactful training opportunities to help keep journalists safe.

Journalists are fundamental to a free and fair society. Aela and her co-founder, Kate Parkinson have more than 30 years of experience as foreign correspondents and are no strangers to working in hostile environments. Employers have a duty of care to their teams who operate on the frontline and often offer hostile environment training to provide staff with the knowledge and tools to deal with challenges and risks which they may encounter on the job. However, Aela says that when working as correspondents in Myanmar, they didn’t feel the training was particularly relevant for them both as females nor for the context of their work. The pair felt “unprepared for the physical, mental, and emotional traumas” of working in countries like Myanmar and Libya. Aela and Kate started to wonder how they could better support  and train themselves and their colleagues, which led to the development of Head Set.

The story behind Head Set

When something goes wrong in the field, there’s no time to think and your body goes into “fight, flight or freeze” mode, Aela tells Graeme. Everyone responds differently when in these situations and she shares an example involving Head Set’s co-founder Kate. In 2011, Kate was covering the fall of Gaddafi in Libya with her cameraman, Olivier Sabil. Amidst the armed conflict, Olivier was hit by a rocket-propelled-grenade. Aela describes how during this death-defying experience, Kate very much felt unable to deal with what was going on around her and froze. Aela aptly describes the sentiment with the analogy of requiring an emotional flak jacket as well as a physical flak jacket. The effects of the event left Kate and Oliver with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – something which Heat Set works to help address too. Fortunately, Olivier made a full recovery and is now an Emmy-award-winning cinematographer – and also Kate’s husband!

After this experience, Kate continued reporting in places such as the Central African Republic, Ukraine, Syria. Aela took a different path and went to Stanford University in the U.S.A as a John S. Knight Fellow, based on her work in Myanmar. It was at Stanford where she put on a VR headset for the first time – and the idea behind Head Set started to take shape.

Throughout the podcast, Aela refers to the previous and current hostile environment training courses which she and Kate felt inadequately prepared them and colleagues for working in the field. Aela and Kate wanted to find a better way to train people like themselves and fellow journalists, so that they are better equipped to handle these high-stake situations in practice. VR provides the ability to simulate high-stake environments, evoke emotions and highlight ways of dealing with those emotions in a safe-space. Over the last two years, Head Set has been working towards producing their first product, a VR experience that helps journalists prepare for protest.

The new era of journalism

Journalists are now on the frontline 24 hours a day, reporting on important national and global issues, from Brexit to Black Lives Matter rallies. The ‘frontline’ for journalists has moved much closer to home and the lines between civilian reporters and journalists are becoming increasingly blurred with the growing use of smartphones and social media to share on-the-ground coverage. As the media landscape shifts, journalists face different and new threats and challenges. Arguably, there has never been a more dangerous time to be a journalist.

Aela and Kate, as journalists themselves, realise that their colleagues’ reaction will often be to run towards danger. Head Set is therefore developing emotionally immersive, highly impactful experiences to equip journalists with the resilience to handle such risks in the field and to avoid the life-changing impacts of PTSD. After Aela’s first interaction with VR at Stanford, she mentions that her reaction was initially indifference, and she jokingly commented, “I’m a serious filmmaker, this won’t take off,” admitting she “ate my words many years later.”

Impact of COVID-19 on Head Set

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses across every industry. For Head Set, the national UK lockdown meant that the team was unable to conduct user testing in person with journalists and therefore had to change their approach. It focused instead on creating very realistic audio and more creative and abstract visuals to evoke emotional responses. The switch to more abstract visuals was shocking to many people and Aela describes how the VR scenarios “look very different to what people imagine it will be.”

Aela refers to the concept of “uncanny valley” – a term describing the decrease in appeal and response when encountering entities that appear almost human-like. This tends to be associated with feelings of unease and people losing control or ‘freaking out’. Rather like old-school horror movies, by being less explicit, one can be much more evocative. From Aela’s experiences with documentaries, she describes how the mind fills in the blanks and so what we imagine can be more impactful than what is visually shown to us. The use of abstract visuals also has the advantage of being easier and quicker to adapt, that is appreciated by clients.

This creative approach affords much wider impact to a range of people in different circumstances. Based on biometric and user feedback, emotional responses were elicited from journalists of all levels from new recruits to seasoned trainers. Aela is really pleased with the result and noting that journalists are often a tough audience to please and are often quite cynical when approaching something new. The team is now working hard to build on and expand the experiences “for good, not evil.”

The future

Head Set’s vision is to not only build a more resilient generation of journalists, but also work with humanitarians, diplomats, first responders and others working in analogous environments. The global Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of preparing for adversity and building resilience in all kinds of workplaces. The company has ambitious plans and over the next 12 months will be looking to fundraise to build more training modules and expand their work with journalists to other professions too.

What are your thoughts on VR training for resilience? Would you try it out or have you used it? Get in touch and let us know.

Learn more about Head Set: